Winter in Nassau
I knew I must write a novel. But it seemed an impossible thing to do when I had been trying with great difficulty to write paragraphs that would be the distillation of what made a novel. It was necessary to write longer stories now as you would train for a longer race.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Chapter 56: Winter in Nassau
The twenty-sixth January of my life was drawing to a close. I was almost halfway to twenty-seven. Twenty-six was my personal deadline for publishing my first serious novel. Hemingway published Fiesta at twenty-six. He was living over a sawmill in Paris. I had been sidetracked for a year into a stultifying civil-service job but escaped to Nassau and lived next to a lumberyard. Close, but no cigar. I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
It was cold by Nassau standards. The wind had backed into the north and came whistling in off the sea. It rattled jalousie windows and crept through cracks into our unheated flat. Electric guitars and Bahamian voices carried on the wind from dance clubs out by the harbor. Moron dogs the islanders called potcake hounds barked and barked beneath our windows. I thought hunger made them bark all night. Like people at the clubs talking under the heavy goombay beat, trying to say something meaningful about other kinds of hunger.
There the dogs went again. Maybe the throb of island drums in the distance set them off. Here came that song again about where had all the flowers gone, long time passing. I wished Bahamian musicians would stick to island music and leave political folk songs on the U.S. mainland where they belonged.
Chloe told me today I had what her mother called the mollycoddles, a form of depression that was fitful and clinging. Sleep, lovemaking, conch fritters at the yacht-basin restaurant and a drive around the island lifted the edge. But by the time we strolled Government Wharf to watch weekend cruise ships leave for America, the depression came back. It clung.
Chloe had a very good female barometer when it came to cold weather; she had to snuggle. Cold burrowing woman-flesh turning warm in close contact was marvelous for holding back the mollycoddles. Lovemaking left her in deep tranquil sleep in the tangled bed-covers. But it brought me hard-edged wakefulness, depression just around a lighted corner in my mind.
I pulled on clothes and unfolded our brand-new electric blanket over her. Last electric blanket in stock at the Shirley Street Ironmongery when islanders grabbed every other one in Nassau’s unseasonable weather. I stroked her forehead while warmth spread through the blanket. “I love you,” she said, little-girl sleepy, half-waking up. She sounded like Shirley Temple when she was sleepy. Little Shirley Temple in a black-and-white Late Show movie, not Shirley Temple the lady politician who came later. Then she was back asleep. The harbor music was going to wait till the midnight hour when its love came tumblin’ down, with steel-band rhythm.
It seemed strange and lucky to have charge of the sleep of this softly breathing creature of so-pale Nordic skin and lustrous dark red hair while the sea wind prowled and distant guitars suffered. But women could be victim to the mollycoddles too. Of course they could. Chloe said recently the only reason I married her on the rebound from Glenda was because she made herself so available as soon as she knew I was alone again.
She knew damn well I married her on the matriarch’s orders, because she didn’t want us “living in sin” in the uptight Georgia town of my birth. Chloe was reluctant with her sixties flower-child distrust of marriage. I missed the musical-bed sixties — she didn’t — but understood her distrust and even shared it. We compromised and married on April Fool’s Day.
Last Sunday I hadn’t been depressed about missing my self-imposed writing deadline, or obsessively worried because my publisher had canceled the tour book I was hired to write. We had a pleasant day at home with late breakfast, then each with a good book, when Glenda came knocking on the door and caught us unprepared for company. Nobody telephoned ahead in Nassau. Almost none of us had a telephone. It was too costly and complicated to get one.
I was reading Hornblower. Mister Midshipman Hornblower in the West Indies. Hornblower read very well in Nassau with trade winds making up. Chloe was reading one of those big thick novels by some South African writer about voortrekking and British versus Boers. One of the most interesting interviews I had for the Chronicle was an eighty-year-old journalist from Botswana traveling America by Greyhound to sell stories about his homeland. Eighty years old, still writing, still going walk-about. An admirable man.
I couldn’t get into the books Chloe liked. All I knew about South Africa, besides the Whistling Women of Nzadzu, an African Christmas story the Botswanan sold me for my Sunday Magazine, was stories the old writer told. Memorably, that Boers gave the British Army as much grief as Francis Marion did a century earlier — a parallel the Oxford-educated Botswanan drew. That Boers used 7mm Mausers effectively as the Swamp Fox’s Carolinians used squirrel rifles. Chloe’s books had none of that.
We were perfectly comfortable reading authors we liked without trying to evangelize each other. I thought that might be a pretty good basis for a happy marriage. We were reading in companionable silence when Glenda knocked. The flat was a terrible mess. Without discussion, with hand signals, we chose to sit very still and pretend not to be home.
Her eight-year-old boy said my Barracuda was in the garage under our flat, I must be home. Glenda knocked several times, but gave up. Her big old Ford roared to life and crunched down the crushed-shell drive past the defunct Playboy Club. I started scrambling to get presentable. “She won’t come back,” Chloe said. “I want to keep reading.”
“She’ll come back.”
“Why? We’re not here!”
“She’ll be back. Listen: do I know my Glenda, or don’t I?”
Probably shouldn’t have said it just that way. But it got her up to dress and straighten a little. They were back in less than thirty minutes knocking on the jalousie again. I remembered now Glenda said she might stop by today. Forgot it in the peaceful relaxation of the weekend. We had picked up just enough — the flat just stale enough — for Glenda to take one sweeping look and think she knew what we were doing when she knocked the first time. Chloe saw the look and the conclusion easily as I did. It gave her a kind of sadistic kick.
We had missed the damp washcloth draped over the back of a dining chair. Chloe had it over her eyes to ease the strain of too much reading. My wallet and car keys and pocket change and wristwatch and wedding ring were in the same chair. There weren’t many places to put things. Glenda chose that chair.
She carefully transferred to the table the same wallet, car keys and wristwatch she moved from similar perches when she and I were together. The spare change had been American not Bahamian. There hadn’t been any wedding ring. She moved that last of all, held delicately between thumb and forefinger. “Men!” she said to Chloe with a small smile.
“You’re pretty good at picking up after them,” Chloe said softly.
“Well, I’ve had practice here and there…”
Standing in front of the mirror combing my hair, still wet from a hasty shower, I could have sworn they just fired warning shots across each other’s bows. Maybe the Hornblower influenced my thought….